After four debates, six hours of discussion, and dozens of questions on everything from personal scandals to the economy, one thing still missing from this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates was this: a conversation about the more than 40 million Americans who live in poverty.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
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The debates got off to a promising start. In the very first question of the first debate, moderator Lester Holt mentioned the record-breaking wage growth of 2015, as well as the millions of Americans who still live paycheck to paycheck. But the question itself was as unremarkable as they come: “Why are you a better choice than your opponent to create the kinds of jobs that will put more money into the pockets of American workers?” Holt failed to press the candidates on the specific policies they would pursue to fight poverty and inequality.
The second debate was supposed to be different. The moderators agreed to consider asking the top 30 questions submitted by the public through PresidentialOpenQuestions.com, a project of the Open Debate Coalition. Nearly four million people voted, with the most voted-on questions focusing on background checks for gun sales, expanding Social Security, climate change, and money in politics.
In conjunction with the Open Debate Coalition, TalkPoverty launched our campaign, #WhereDoYouStand, which focused specifically on questions related to poverty and economic opportunity. Literally thousands of voters asked the candidates where they stand on issues that affect low-income families—everything from equal pay for equal work to food insecurity to tax credits for working families.
But moderators ignored all of those topics in the second debate. In fact, the only question they included was a query on WikiLeaks that received a grand total of 13 votes (the 30 most popular questions that they had agreed to consider all received more than 20,000 votes).
Last night’s forum wasn’t any better. Moderator and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked just one question on the economy, and it was particularly unhelpful: “Please explain to me why you believe your plan will create more jobs and growth for this country, and your opponent’s plan will not.” The only question from the Open Debate Coalition was a conservative question on the Second Amendment.
Ironically, the questions generated through the online petition ended up demonstrating how sophisticated most voters are compared to the debate moderators. Not one of the top 30 submitted questions was about a scandal, gaffe, or personal foible of the candidates. The popularity of questions about the 42 million Americans facing food insecurity or the tax rate for Social Security benefits prove that people want to hear questions about policy.
Lest we get cynical, this is progress. General election debates historically don’t take questions submitted online. The mere fact that Americans were able to vote on the questions they wanted to hear in the debates represents an acknowledgment that our voices matter.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this year’s debates, it’s that we can’t expect the media to ask about issues just because they matter to voters. The media responds to movements. Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and Occupy Wall Street all gained attention from the media and lawmakers because they organized and gained traction with the public.
If we want the media to talk about poverty, we need to turn anti-poverty work into an anti-poverty movement.